A scene from Ralph Bakshi's "Lord of the Rings" | Image courtesy of Bakshi Productions

A scene from Ralph Bakshi’s “Lord of the Rings” | Image courtesy of Bakshi Productions

America’s first ‘mature’ animator appears in person Friday and Saturday for screenings of some of his best work

By Michael Aushenker

As a conversation with Ralph Bakshi winds down, the exasperated, no-nonsense, Brooklyn-blunt animation king sums himself up this way: “I create. I draw. I take chances.”

Some of Bakshi’s best animated features, including “American Pop” and the 1978 animated “Lord of the Rings,” screen this weekend during an American Cinematheque retrospective at the Aero Theatre, where Bakshi himself will appear to talk about his work.

When asked which from his lengthy filmography best represents his art, the 76-year-old listed funky urban comedies “Heavy Traffic,” “Coonskin” and “Fritz the Cat,” and the medieval fantasy “Wizards.”

All four features arrived in the 1970s, but Bakshi got his start in the burgeoning TV animation industry of the 1950s. Growing up in Brooklyn’s multi-ethnic Brownsville neighborhood taught Bakshi the art of negotiation by the time he started as a young animator at Terrytoons (the East Coast studio behind “Mighty Mouse” and “Heckle & Jeckle”), which he described as “very wonderful. It wasn’t that big a business then. There were a lot of great cartoonists.”

Greats like Jules Feiffer and Gene Deitch, whose minimalist UPA sensibility foundered at Terrytoons.

“UPA was boring. I thought he made a big mistake. Deitch got let go because nothing he did was successful commercially,” Bakshi said.

At the time, the perceived competition was Disney, Warner Bros: “It was always the West Coast studios that had the lock on the publicity, which shaped the history of animation. Which was wrong.”

Acquired by CBS as TV animation “was taking over,” Terrytoons sent its big brass, led by Bill Weiss, to a pitch meeting with network executives that included future ABC and NBC President Fred Silverman. Bakshi was asked to attend to help carry in the big presentation drawings.

Terrytoons’ talents pitched six potential animated shows and “all of the ideas were shot down by Fred Silverman. There was a dead silence.” The kind of silence, Bakshi added, he had heard “on a Sunday in New York when the Yankees lost the final game.”

As the dejected animators began filtering out, Bakshi piped up. Silverman responded condescendingly, “What do you got, kid?”

Bakshi improvised what became verbatim “The Mighty Heroes.”

“Everyone was stunned,” Bakshi remembered. “Silverman said, ‘I’ll buy it.’” I don’t know where it came from. I didn’t have it going in.”

The superhero team parody ran for 20 episodes until director Bakshi left for Paramount.

By the 1970s the maverick animator brought plenty of life to movie theaters adapting Robert Crumb’s ribald underground comic book “Fritz the Cat,” challenging the post-hippie mores of the day. “Fritz” became the first animated feature ever to receive an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America and the most successful independent feature in animation history.

“It was never a risk to me. I grew up poor in Brownsville. I could always go back to selling sneakers,” Bakshi said.

Unlike those acerbic Warner Bros. cartoons or the kaleidoscopic world of Disney, Bakshi’s features —often gritty and urban — drew inspiration from literary heroes like Shalom Aleichem, Norman Mailer and John Fante: “I was after characters and what they were about. I didn’t care for witty that much. I was really after life,” Bakshi said.

Bakshi didn’t invent Rotoscoping (animating over live action film) but used it to great effect. For 1978’s “Lord of the Rings” he shot footage in Spain where “they had castles and great horse riders.” An intended second installment never materialized because, according to Bakshi, he didn’t get paid on the first one.

“I loved Tolkien. I read the books and I was stunned but I also didn’t want to be stuck doing another man’s work. There were other things I wanted to make.”

That spirit continues this weekend when Bakshi also premieres footage from his upcoming “The Last Days of Coney Island.”

A double bill of “Heavy Traffic” / “American Pop” screens at 7:30 p.m. Friday and “Lord of the Rings” / “Wizards” screen at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. Ralph Bakshi appears both nights. $14. Call (310) 260-1528 or visit aerotheatre.com.